The Magazine

The Decline of Baseball Civilization

From the April 13, 1998 issue: Our pastime isn't what it used to be, and neither are we.

Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Its decline begins with television. It simply cannot compete on screen with the spectacles of basketball and football. These are fast, clock-driven games, perfectly attuned to the quick-cut world of video. Perhaps even more important is the size and speed of the ball. In basketball and football, it is large and easily visible. It also travels at speeds that the human eye can apprehend on a small screen. Not so in baseball. Baseball is 90 percent pitching (the other half is hitting, as Yogi Berra might say), and pitching is notoriously hard to follow.

Even harder to follow is the ball coming off the bat. Mark McGwire hit a grand slam on Opening Day last Tuesday. How does the biggest play of that game appear on screen? A large man swings a bat. Then cut to a sea of fans in left field looking upward for a speck that is entirely invisible to the TV viewer. (Hockey suffers from the same problem: small puck, high speeds, low ratings.)

But that can't be the whole explanation. After all, we have been in the television age for forty years, and baseball's decline, while noticeable, was not precipitous until the last few years. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it enjoyed something of a revival, with high attendance, fan interest, and renewed cultural vogue ("Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," books by Roger Angell and George Will, Ken Burns's PBS documentary, etc.).

Then came the '94 strike. It was a seminal event. Not just because it killed the season, disrupted the rhythms, and showed how easy it is to live without baseball. But because it showed fans that the owners and players cared so much less about the game--its statistics, its records, even the World Series--than they did. It mocked the fan. After all, it is ridiculous enough to care deeply whether some total stranger making $ 8 million a year hits 61 homers or bats .400. It is even more ridiculous when you care about it more than the player does.

Beyond the shock of the strike is the inexorable erosion that lies in baseball's demographics. The fans are getting older. It is old fogies like me who still care about the game. Fewer kids watch it. Fewer still play it. What was the decisive demographic of the '96 presidential election? Soccer moms. A generation ago, soccer moms were to be found in Padua, not Peoria.

Part of this erosion, like most of baseball's woes, is self-inflicted. Baseball has made it increasingly hard for kids to establish a bond with the game. Generally this association happens in two ways. One is to watch the great players and retain indelible memories of magic moments. The barons of baseball have done their best to make this physically impossible. Kids today have no memories of dramatic baseball events because most of these events happen far past their bedtimes. The NFL puts its Super Bowl on at 6 P.M. so that even in the East it is over by early evening. That's about when World Series games are getting started.

How many people actually saw the most dramatic baseball moment of the last 25 years, Carlton Fisk's home run that won in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, the one where he bounces up and down like a rabbit and coaxes the ball to stay fair? He hit it at 12:34 A.M. Everybody has seen it on the highlights and promotional films. But who saw it live?

Last year's thrilling extra-inning seventh game of the World Series ended after midnight. Baseball is a slow uncoiling game. Its tension rises ever so subtly. Its great dramatic moments inevitably occur late. For the last generation, ever since baseball went to night ball for the showcase All-Star and Series games, the drama has occurred past any normal person's, let alone child's, bedtime.

III

The other way kids bond with teams is to follow them day to day, year to year. They establish a connection with a great player or star who carries the identity of the team (and the game) with him into the child's consciousness. This is the role of a Michael Jordan or a John Elway (who, tellingly, was drafted both by the Baltimore Colts and the New York Yankees, and chose the sport of the future over the sport of the past). It is still the role of a Cal Ripken, and helps to account for the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are one of the few healthy franchises in baseball and one of the only teams that consistently sells out its stadium.

But Ripken, a star who has played with the same team for all 17 years of his career, is the rare exception. The great players now change cities and uniforms with carpetbagging alacrity and barely a look back. Think of players who are not just stars but superstars: Orel Hershiser, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Jose Canseco. Does even a real fan know who they play for today? (Ans.: San Francisco, Tampa, Minnesota, Toronto.)